• 17 July, 2024
Foreign Affairs, Geopolitics & National Security

Integrated Theatre Commands: India Needs to Think Big

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd)
Tue, 20 Jul 2021   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

Integrated Theatre Commands: India Needs to Think Big

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd)

The United States was the first country to start working on the concept of jointmanship among all the branches of its military. Though the US Army started working on joint functioning way back in 1905, the concept of the Unified Command Plan (UCP) took off only in 1946, soon after the World War II, in response to friction between different branches of the military. However, the concept remained mostly in theory and the US military remained mostly disjointed.

Glaring examples of ineffectiveness of jointmanship were visible in three prominent military operations that failed miserably. The Mayaguez incident against Cambodian forces in 1975. Operation Eagle Claw to end the Iran hostage crisis in 1980. Last but not the least, Operation Urgent Fury or the invasion of Grenada in 1983. The ineffectiveness of joint operations of the United States military was a jolt to the superpower. Soon the reforms followed. Since then, it has been a continuous phenomenon. What Unified Command Plan we witness today is the result of restructuring in 2011.

It Won’t Happen for India in a Jiffy

Philosopher Susanne K Langer once wrote: “Ideas and concepts that have grown common-sensical can be seen as lights that illuminate things which simply had no form for us before the light fell on them. We turn on the light here, there, and everywhere, and the limits of thought recede before it”.

Once Indian military reforms kick in, they would illuminate challenges and solutions which one could not see earlier. The sooner reforms are undertaken, better prepared and protected the country would be. The Russian process had started in 2008, but the tinkering with the system has continued till date. Chinese reforms started in 2015 and were implemented in 2016, however they are nowhere near the desired aim. India cannot afford to drag its feet on the issue of national security. It has already lost 20 years post ‘Kargil War’. Military leaders must go for it with an open mind. One cannot be sure if the next war is just around the corner and we are caught with an obsolete mindset.

The Present and the Way Forward

Presently the Indian armed forces have 17 commands, in addition to tri-service Andaman & Nicobar and Strategic Forces Commands. The Army and the Air Force have 7 commands each, whereas the Navy has 3 commands.

The following five Integrated Theatre Commands (ITC) have been proposed: Northern Land Theatre (Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Central sector) Western Land Theatre (Pakistan centric), Eastern Land Theatre, Maritime Theatre Command, and Air Defence Command.

These names suggest that India is aiming to integrate and make mega service commands, rather than propagate synergy and jointmanship between different arms of the services. Military leaders will have to explain, what objectives were kept in mind while proposing the current command structure. The proposed plan looks defensive, limited in scope and vision. It is evident that the thrust remains on China and Pakistan. Whereas the vision should have been, where do we see India in 20 to 30 years from now? Would India be clinging to the threat of Pakistan 20 years from now or would it be striving for greater heights?

Twenty years from now, India could have military bases all over Indo-Pacific. India would be dominating the Indian Ocean like never before and exercising with allied countries in faraway seas and lands. Indian forces would be guarding Indian economic interests across the globe. Keeping that in mind, I propose an expansion of our vision with the following ‘Command Structure’:

  • The Arabian Sea and Middle East Theatre
  • West Asia Theatre
  • Central Asia Theatre
  • China and Far East Theatre
  • Andaman and South East Asia Theatre
  • Space and Strategic Command
  • Cyber Command

Each ‘Theatre Command’ should have its specific objectives and therefore the required force structure.

Why Theatre Commands When Everything is Fine

Just because a military buys modern equipment, it doesn’t become state of the art. Modern, resourceful, and innovative great military powers draw strategy and develop/acquire technology and weapon platforms accordingly. Poor, static, and backward nations on the other hand first acquire weapon platforms, whatever they can afford, and then devise their strategies around that.

Theatre Commands are much more than just jointmanship, technology, and strategy. It is about speed and time in achieving success on the battlefield: “A minute can determine the result of the battle, an hour the result of the campaign, and a day the fate of empires.” Command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) have speeded up the process of decision-making. The key to winning the war is having command over technology, implementation of technology, and utilizing that technology in acting faster than the adversary. The answer to all this is a modern ‘Integrated Command Structure’.

Russia with Joint Strategic Commands was able to reduce the number of stages orders pass through from 16 to 5. Lesser the number of stages, faster the decision-making. Indian armed forces have to assess and realize how the widespread change and efforts to enhance overall speed and efficiency of decision-making from strategic, to operational and tactical levels would be implemented in our context. Once implemented, these processes would impact structures, personnel, equipment, and weapons systems across the entire range of combat arms and branches, as well as combat support and combat service support. These areas are widely underestimated and significantly impact military decision-making.

A Change of Mindset

India’s experience of military operations in the last 50 years has been mainly concentrated on counter-insurgency operations in North East, Jammu & Kashmir, and the 1971 & Kargil war with Pakistan. The fact is Pakistan remained the prime enemy. The leadership at every level had its head in the sand, oblivious of the fast-changing geopolitical scene across our sphere of influence. One must realize that the methods and doctrines of the 70s and 90s won’t suffice in future wars. The standoff in Doklam and Ladakh brought in a paradigm shift in the thinking. The leadership also realized the futility of outdated structures, strategies, and war-making machines.

It is not easy to give up one’s fiefdom, the same is true for any position of power, be it civilian or military. The change of mindset is required in India’s conventional military capabilities. Network-centric approaches to modern and future warfare, adopting command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) are steps in that direction. Adoption of C4ISR would result in speed and efficiency of military decision-making. India has no option but to exploit high technology to gain an edge over the enemy in future military conflicts. As Indian Armed Forces adopt more of this technology, it will require further modifications to the recruitment, training, and education of personnel.

Such willingness to change was demonstrated by Russia while experimenting with network-centric warfare during military operations in Syria. It was most important to note the absence of massed artillery fires. Precision strikes and usage of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for immediate Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) were the hallmarks of the operations. Progress was also evident in improved surveillance, reconnaissance capability, and innovative electronic warfare techniques.

What Should be the Aim

India is not NATO or the United States. This fact should be the premise while working on the Theatre Command concept. Indian process should not simply mirror US/NATO/Russia/China approaches but be unique to our geography, threat perception, and future objectives. The transformation should also not be just an exercise in reallocation of assets but be driven by transitioning the force structures into the modern information era.

The ITCs would also need a single information space like the American ‘Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability’. However, the aim should not be to become a slave to ‘Network-Centrism’, which is described as a ‘mental trap,’ by some of the experts. It is a method to achieve an additional “force multiplier” in the state’s future warfighting capability. The ultimate aim should be to move towards ‘Decision Centric Warfare.’

Indian planners should also keep in mind that this is not just one-time reform but a continuous process. The Americans started the reforms over hundred years ago and are still continuing. The Russians initially opted for only four ‘Joint Strategic Commands’. At a later date, a fifth ‘Northern Command’ was added to meet specific requirements. Therefore, in India’s case also there should be a provision for organizational changes at a later date if some of the structures are not giving desired results. There should be a regular review of the command structure adopted and desired fine-tuning with the changing times.

Last but not the least, ‘Defence Industry’ should be brought up and nurtured at a war footing. It is an often ignored aspect in India, without realizing that the domestic defence industry for the modernization of armed forces is as important as the fighting arms themselves. No nation has become a great power without having a robust defence industry.

The Country’s Leadership Must Prevail

Successful joint military operations depend on the successful integration and synchronization of numerous elements of combat power into a joint force whose fighting capability is greater than the sum of its elements.

At no time jointness should become a challenge or become dysfunctional in the process of becoming functional. This often happens when allegiance to individual service becomes bigger than the ultimate aim. If that happens, the country’s leadership must prevail. No one said India will get it right in the first go itself. Very few countries and military leaders understand and can talk about integrated command structures. India could become a shining beacon if it takes the first baby steps in that direction.



  • armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/Hot%20Spots/Documents/Russia/2017-07-The-Russian-Way-of-War-Grau-Bartles.pdf
  • jamestown.org/program/the-revolution-in-russian-military-decision-making/
  • thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2021/7/8/cyberspace-is-an-analogy-not-a-domain-rethinking-domains-and-layers-of-warfare-for-the-information-age
  • tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14702436.2021.1932476
  • Joint Operational Warfare by Milan Vego
  • Joint Operations: A Short History by Stuart Griffin
  • indianexpress.com/article/explained/proposed-integrated-theatre-commands-what-we-know-so-far-7374555/
  • dia.mil/Portals/27/Documents/News/Military%20Power%20Publications/China_Military_Power_FINAL_5MB_20190103.pdf
  • media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF
  • ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/jfq/jfq-94/jfq-94_108-112_Crosbie.pdf?ver=2019-07-25-162025-397
  • defensenews.com/global/europe/2019/04/25/how-the-uks-joint-forces-command-is-about-to-change-and-why-it-wont-be-easy/
  • theverge.com/2021/7/6/22565281/pentagon-microsoft-jedi-amazon



A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Sandeep Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for the various online websites and organizations. His Twitter handle is @InsightGL.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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Indian Military Reforms: Delays, Dispassion and Dissociation - Chanakya Forum

Jan 15, 2023
[…] would give an undue advantage to India’s sworn enemy China. As I brought out in my article “Integrated Theatre Commands: India Needs to Think Big,” reforms are not the end of the problems; rather, they are like lights that illuminate things […]

Yati Raj

Aug 24, 2021
Thank you for sharing uncle!! This article helped me understand how important it is to be prepared for the unpredictable future. It is crucial the government focuses on modernizing the armed forces by utilizing new technologies. Also, intelligent planning and successful strategies must be adopted to assure India's secure future.

Ashutosh Bahuguna

Aug 15, 2021
Well written ...congratulations..A caliberated approach is the need of the hour .....


Aug 15, 2021
A very well researched piece which explains the concept very well. Could you possibly also add a piece on the impact of dissipation of strategic resources like air power into these theatre commands. In a country with limited strategic resources, wouldn’t such a system be counter-productive if they are distributed into penny packets?


Aug 15, 2021
A very succinct appraisal of the prophet sed model. Highly informative. Thanks


Aug 14, 2021
Excellent read. Really written nicely.


Aug 12, 2021
The western neighbour is now no more a potential threat as it used to be in the past, still we do not lower our guard in anticipation of any kind of terrorist activities in the future. I think the so called ceasefire is a bluff and we should clearly give pakistan a tough time at LOC. We have only 2 corps facing china we should now focus on raising up more strike corps in less time. These ITC have definitely gained eyes in past few months. It is important to have these commands but aren't we too late. Hoping that wt ever happens with this turns out to be successful and force multiplier and efficient. Jai Hind 🇮🇳


Jul 31, 2021
please add numbers too

Naresh Kumar Shukla

Jul 30, 2021
Execllent conceptulization for proactive future defence and national ambition realisation.One addon i humbly propose is one integrated input gathering and action command against internal challanges,conspiracies from within and outside.All intelligence arms within and outside must share information at 5g speed.i am just a nationalist not an expert on defece.

Kasturi Gade

Jul 29, 2021
wonderfully explained. we need further and deep explanation about the newly proposed theatre commands

Atul Dewan

Jul 26, 2021
Integrated Theatre Command is a concept whose time has arrived. You have presented a very nuanced view of the applicability of the concept in Indian context. While I appreciate your views on the suggested approach, I feel the recommended new theatres may require a re-look owing to our sated policies and the geographic names suggested may unsettle our extended neighbourhood. Very interestingly articulated as always.

Hemant Kumar

Jul 26, 2021
Very nicely analyzed and presented. Indian Armed Forces as well as the political system are not yet matured enough for a unified command. It does not make sense to have a unified Command unless the nation wishes to go global. And the three Services have to think beyond their Service to be able to fit into a unified Command concept. Well written Sandeep.

Gp Capt V Mohan (Retd)

Jul 25, 2021
An interesting and well researched article.. as always.Theatre command concepts have been explained nicely. The major advantage of having integrated theater commands.. is to give the C-in-C the flexibility to employ the joint assets placed under him swiftly against any threat in his theater. This effectively strengthens the command and control and shortens the decision making process during war or crisis situation. Ideally, all theater commands should be able to handle any situation almost independently in their own theaters. However, given our limited military resources, no theater command would be in a position to handle any threat situations independently given the limited resources at its disposal. Whether India's economic situation would permit to allocate such huge military resources to each proposed theater commands, at least for the next 10 years, are discussion points for the economists, military strategists and our top political leadership to deliberate and decide..merely creating structures without adequate and credible resources to allocate to theaters would not serve the purpose. My limited contribution to this discussion.. Thanks.

Jas Dhali

Jul 24, 2021
As always, *An Excellent article.* Thought provoking. The suggestions are logical. May the good sence prevail. All arms must think about pooling in the resources rather than, _'who has the final say'_. *The final say is of the country*. The intake of personnel must be well thought of. _Brains alongwith bronze_ be the order of the day. Very well summarised. There *needs* to be _One Office_ for the Theatre Commands. Kudos 👍

Rishabh Kapoor

Jul 22, 2021
Marvellous, stupendously written.Awesome explanation of historical facts taking examples of US military.


Jul 22, 2021
Very interesting article on a very pertinent topic facing the Armed Forces of India. I remember Late Mr Parrikar , the then RM , was the first to give momentum to this concept. Change is the only constant in all walks of life and great leaders handling management of change decides the future of great nations. My take is since this concept is new to our Armed forces, we must focus on the current territorial handling and transition to Theatre / joint Command in the first phase of a 5 year plan and expand the theatre as per your recommendation in Asia and IOR in the next 5 year plan , by which time the teething problems would've got sorted out. Thanks for an inspiring article Sandy! Hope the CDS & RM take note of this brilliant article and expedite implementation to make our country a powerful Regional Entity.

Brajesh Kumar

Jul 22, 2021
Nicely explained the rationale for Theater Command; more importantly, it’s a continuous process. Some thing new therefore, anticipated resistance from the 3 Services. Security requirements of India are intimately intertwined with its economy. Creating Theater Commands beyond the immediate neighbourhood in S Asia & IOR at this point of time may appear distant.

Sid Gupta

Jul 22, 2021
As always, great exposure on the understanding of the Theatre concept and its strategic ramifications. I also feel that we should sensitize common citizens of india to understand the Armed Forces, which is grossly missing. You are doing a great job Sir.

Cdr Deepak Singh (Retd)

Jul 22, 2021
Sandeep, the most valid point by you says that no Country has achieved this in one go. There is a bomb burst (like the formation flying teams do), everyone in different directions. Sit, talk and make a beginning. Correct, change, go back to discussing. It will take years to achieve what we have yet not visualised. Great information and suggestions in your article. Keep going.


Jul 21, 2021
The article is nicely written however there seems to be differences within services regarding implementation.


Jul 21, 2021
What a view of thoughts, Great

Deovrat Pagay

Jul 21, 2021
It was after the second World War that the Allies realized the importance of ‘Synergy’. The Allied Air and Land offensives and the offensives in the sea by the Japanese. The advanced countries the world over have effectively modified their Armies ever since. In India, we are yet to make a move in this direction. Today, Cyber Technology and AI are the two most potent weapons; which if used in conjunction with HUMINT can bring decisive results. India needs to implement this integration at a faster pace, with its focus on IOR, Central Asia and the Pacific. Space and Cyber Commands need immediate attention. We need determined political will and a bold strategic vision for the future…

Raman Gupta

Jul 21, 2021
Such a simple and lucid explanation of a complicated issue shows your grasp on the subject. Thanks a lot for explaining this for us all. Hope those in the corridors of power will pay heed

Sarvjit Slaria

Jul 21, 2021
1. Hi. Nicely put across. 2. Wrt naming Theatres, GoI will never agree to it( as of now). Bide your time, as Chinese say. Few decades hence, once we become better economic and mil power, it can surely be followed. 2. While there is much consternation about land domination, it will remain so till our borders are secure and demarcated. Don't see happening in near future, with Taliban and Co, starting it's history from 7th century. This threat will always remain at top of our agenda. 3. Next is the maritime domain, which is as important . Strong Navy with all 3D assets is a must. All pmf, coastal forces under op cont Navy and coord. 3. Cyber space, remains important and is to be taken as necessary condition . 4. AF....strat arm. But towards what aim? With PLA, salami slicing and use of clubs and maces, full fledged war may be dissuaded by AF, but what about area ceding. Boots on grnd. No other option, as of now. Rgds

Prem Kumar sinha

Jul 21, 2021
Process of integration cannot be done overnight as our politicians and some bureaucrats must be thinking.. Any fatal judgement in this activity can come to haunt services for a long time. First and foremost all parties should be brought on the same platform to sit and plan the road ahead. Brainstorming and some bickering will slowly start showing a path ahead. Secondly, the most difficult part, will be to force the brasses to remove the ego and attitude from the discussion. Politicians and bureaucrats should be in attendance to give necessary inputs, but not on panels deciding the structure of the commands. One of the downside could be availability of requisite funds to meet the logistics , this is where the politicians and bureaucrats will have to have the will and resolved to support the budding theater commands.


Jul 21, 2021
Once again an Excellent article

Narinder Pal Singh Hora

Jul 21, 2021
A very well written article giving a different dimension to the concept of theaterism of armed forces. No doubts, for such a concept to succeed or move in the right direction, the Chiefs of the three forces have to rise above individual fiefdoms and work out how a common thinking could be evolved for restructuring the division of assets. At the same time CDS should ensure synergy among the forces rather than trying to belittle a particular force, if this conceptof theatre command is to succeed. It would be prudent if the author, in his subsequent articles, could bring out his thought process while recommending the seven Theatre Commands and the basis on which they could evolve. Very well done Sandeep. Looking forward to the next addition of your research.

Vikas Choudhary

Jul 21, 2021
Very aptly timed and well penned down properly researched article. The article has given a new dimension to the concept of theatre comd and lets hope that people in power take cognizance of these newfold ideas such as moving away from network centric to decision centric warfare etc. An interesting read and nicely written concept paper


Jul 21, 2021
Nice one sir. Good thoughts.

Vijay Nair

Jul 21, 2021
A delightful read as always. Found the designation of theatres interesting. Maybe you can elaborate on the rationale too, considering that we should go in for a healthy mix of ‘threat’ and ‘capability’ based force structures and procurement processes, for military effectiveness (convert resources into fighting power). Maybe you could also write about the mil effectiveness of the polity and political effectiveness of a military, to chart the course from jointness to integrated. All the best

Joseph Mathew

Jul 21, 2021
As usual a very nicely written article. Sometimes I get the feeling that we are putting the cart before the horse. In one go we are trying to create the command structure that the US has. The IA's concept of warfare has been blinkered by prolonged CI operations. Kargil cannot be classified as a war it can at best be called an intense border skirmish over a very limited geographic area. Today the entire senior military leadership can't think beyond CI ops and they have the mandate to create integrated commands. Can these Generals think big?

Nitin A S

Jul 21, 2021
A visionary, interesting and thought provoking article. Need for the ITC can not be overemphasized. India's security requirements are complex,dynamic, multi faceted and spread over diverse terrain and climates, for which closest integration and jointmanship is required between its various combat arms, combat supporting arms and combat services. With advancements in precision weapons/platforms, modern communication and surveillance systems, operations enhanced into space frontiers, cyber warfare and non conventional possibilities, a structurally integrated force with joint training and interoperable weapon systems/ equipment will remain critical and decisive. Strategic planning beyond a few decades would necessitate periodic changeovers having its own challenges and threats. Despite such issues a systematic, realistic and time-bound changeover plan needs to be executed proficiently, so that the Nation's security needs are addressed proactively.

Raghu Vir Gauba

Jul 21, 2021
Excellent write up !

Wendell Bruges

Jul 21, 2021
Very enlightening and simple to understand article on a very deep and complex topic. 2000 words may not suffice, but you have given a direction to the thought process. I am sure your country's leadership is also on the same page.

Sukhjit singh

Jul 21, 2021
A well written article. Indian planners must realise that requirements of each country are unique and we must not follow others blindly


Jul 21, 2021
superb sir🙏

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